Tips & Tricks: Notifications, Why They Must Be Important

Here’s what drives me crazy: I’m busy working away on the couch in my office and my iPhone dings. Because I’m Pavlov’s dog for the alert sound on my iPhone, this instantly breaks me out of my flow. Alert! Important News! Come Quick! I can’t stop myself from picking up the phone and checking the important, breaking news I have just been alerted to.

…and it’s a notice that I can now download the next issue of New York Magazine. Blerg.

Alerts are a great way to reach your users and remind them about your app. But alerts are a privilege, not a right. If you  loudly proclaim the importance of an alert to your users, and they don’t think it’s that important, you create a little pill of annoyance in them. Do that a few times, and they’re annoyed enough to turn off all your alert capabilities.

So if you want to keep the privilege of sending users alerts, then use the alerting system wisely. Here are a few rules guidelines about when and how to use the iOS notification system.

The iOS Alert Primer:

iOS apps can provide three types of notifications, and each type is an escalation of importance for the information you want to alert your user to. Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Badges: The least intrusive and so least important on the alert hierarchy. High pollen count today? Badge that icon.


What it does: Displays an image or number on the application icon.

What to use it for: Good for non-time sensitive messages.


“Someone replied to your tweet.”


“Pollen counts high in your area today.”

Users want to know about this today, but not right now, today.

Things to Remember: Users should be able to easily find the information you thought was important enough to badge once they tap into your app. The Weather Channel app on my iPhone is constantly alerting me to important weather issues, but once in the app I can never find the thing they thought was so important. Is there a tornado headed my way? A tsunami? Crazy-wild pollen cloud so I should quickly close my windows and turn on the air-conditioning? I never know.

Also, the badge must clear (disappear) after users have taken a look at the relevant info. I have uninstalled apps that refuse to clear their badges.

2. Alerts/Banners: Great semi-important alerts. 49ers just won the Super Bowl? A banner alert is appropriate.

What it does: Displays an alert or banner on the screen.

What to use it for: Appropriate for breaking news. Just be sure it’s really news, and not ads, or your user will quickly turn all your messaging off. Banners are great because they show up at the top of the screen, allowing users to quickly read the notice, but not forcing them to stop what they’re doing and deal with your alert. If they’re very interested in the news, they can tap the banner and go to your app to find out more.


Breaking news: “Ed Koch, Former Mayor of New York, Dies at 88”

Not breaking news: “Get the award-winning season of The Carpetbagger on”

Also, don’t use too many of them, this isn’t a Twitter stream.

Things to remember: Whether it’s a banner or a pop-up alert window is user controlled. Even so, be considerate of your user and default to the banner. If they want a pop-up window that forces them to stop what they’re doing and deal with that alert, let your user make that call.

3. Sounds: If it requires immediate attention from the user, then—and only then—include the sound.

What it does: Plays an audible sound along with a banner or badge.

What to use it for: Text messaging is the obvious and in my book almost the only time an audible alert should be used, because texts are immediate and usually require a reply. (Except those annoying texts-ads from AT&T.) Or calendar events, like the call I have with an investor in ten minutes, which I would have completely forgotten if my phone hadn’t given me an audible alert.


Requires audible alert: Skype messages, SMS messages, upcoming calender events

Does not required audible alert: almost everything else

Precious little warrants an audible interruption to my day of sitting on the couch drafting contracts, answering emails and writing this blog. That said, it’s really annoying to find that an old friend in Italy was trying to reach me on Skype, but because there wasn’t an audible alert, I didn’t know about it.

The key to alerts is to appropriately reach out to your users. Us the audible sound if you know that’s what your user will want. But don’t be that kid hanging on his mother’s coat saying “Mom? Mom? Hey mom? Mommy? Mommy mom? Hey mom? Mom? Mom? Mom?”


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